Donald Trump, left, his son Donald Trump Jr and daughter Ivanka Trump at the unveiling of the design for the Trump International Hotel in 2013. Photo / Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP, File
Former US President Donald Trump is expected to be questioned under oath in the coming days in the New York attorney general’s long-running investigation into his dealings as a real estate mogul.
The deposition could be a critical moment in the investigation of allegations that the Republican billionaire’s company, the Trump Organisation, misled banks and tax authorities about the value of prized assets such as golf courses and skyscrapers.
New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office said in May that it was nearing the end of its probe and that investigators have amassed substantial evidence that could support legal action against Trump, his company or both.
Trump’s deposition – a legal term for sworn testimony that’s not given in court – is one of the few remaining missing pieces, the attorney general’s office said.
Two of the former president’s adult children – Donald Trump Jr and Ivanka Trump – sat for questioning in the investigation in recent days, two people familiar with the matter said. The people were not authorised to speak publicly about the investigation and did so on condition of anonymity.
The Trumps’ testimony had initially been planned for last month but was delayed after the July 14 death of the former president’s ex-wife, Ivana Trump, the mother of Ivanka, Donald Jr and another son, Eric Trump.
Eric Trump sat for a deposition in 2020. Donald Trump Jr’s testimony last week was first reported by The New York Times.
Messages seeking comment were left with James’ office and with lawyers for the Trumps. They either declined comment or did not respond.
James, a Democrat, has said in court filings that her office has uncovered “significant” evidence that Trump’s company “used fraudulent or misleading asset valuations to obtain a host of economic benefits, including loans, insurance coverage and tax deductions”.
James alleges the Trump Organisation exaggerated the value of its holdings to impress lenders or misstated what land was worth to slash its tax burden, pointing to annual financial statements given to banks to secure favourable loan terms and to financial magazines to justify Trump’s place among the world’s billionaires.
The company even exaggerated the size of Trump’s Manhattan penthouse, saying it was nearly three times its actual size – a difference in value of about $200 million, James’ office said.
It’s time to put an end to corrupt elected officials prioritizing themselves over the New Yorkers they promised to protect.
As long as I am AG, I will crack down on corruption and deliver a government that is for the people.
— Tish James (@TishJames) July 31, 2022
Trump has denied the allegations, explaining that seeking the best valuations is a common practice in the real estate industry. He says James’ investigation is part of a politically motivated “witch hunt” and that her office is “doing everything within their corrupt discretion to interfere with my business relationships, and with the political process”.
“THERE IS NO CASE!” Trump said in a February statement, after Manhattan Judge Arthur Engoron ruled that James’ office had “the clear right” to question Trump and other principals in his company.
While James has explored suing Trump or his company, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has long pursued a parallel criminal investigation.
That probe had appeared to be progressing toward a possible criminal indictment, but slowed after a new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, took office in January.
A grand jury that had been hearing evidence disbanded. The top prosecutor who had been handling the probe resigned after Bragg raised questions internally about the viability of the case.
Bragg has said his investigation is continuing, which means that Trump could invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and decline to answer questions from James’ investigators.
According to the subpoenas, Trump was to appear in person at the attorney general’s office, located in a Manhattan office tower that has doubled as the fictional conglomerate Waystar Royco’s headquarters on the TV show Succession.
As vociferous as Trump has been in defending himself in written statements and on the rally stage, legal experts say the same strategy could backfire in a deposition setting because anything he says could potentially be used against him or his company in the criminal investigation. No former president has even been charged with a crime.
In fighting to block the subpoenas, lawyers for the Trumps argued New York authorities were using the civil investigation to get information for the criminal probe and that the depositions were a ploy to avoid calling them before a criminal grand jury, where state law requires they be given immunity.
Last summer, spurred by evidence uncovered by James’ office, Manhattan prosecutors charged the Trump Organisation and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, with tax fraud. Prosecutors said Weisselberg collected more than $1.7 million in off-the-books compensation. Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty.
Weisselberg and Eric Trump each invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 500 times when questioned by James’ lawyers during separate depositions in 2020, according to court papers.
The former president could choose to do the same, but it’s likely “he’ll claim lack of knowledge on many questions”, New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said.
That strategy “actually may be quite credible because we know he’s not a green eyeshade guy, but a big picture guy”, Gillers said. “So he’ll answer the big picture questions and those answers will be general enough to keep him out of trouble, or so his lawyers will hope.
“On the other hand, his impetuosity makes him a lawyer’s nightmare and his overconfidence may lead him astray. Whoever questions him will encourage that,” the professor added.
Once her investigation wraps up, James could decide to bring a lawsuit and seek financial penalties against Trump or his company, or even a ban on them being involved in certain types of businesses.